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Manish Kejriwal | Playing it by instinct

Manish Kejriwal | Playing it by instinct
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First Published: Sat, Apr 05 2008. 12 45 AM IST

Looking forward: Always two and a half hours ahead (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Looking forward: Always two and a half hours ahead (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Updated: Sat, Apr 05 2008. 12 45 AM IST
The Zojirushi electric water heater, a staple in East Asia offices, and a clock set to 3.07pm below the one showing Mumbai’s 12.37pm are the only signs of Singapore in this conference room. Manish Kejriwal—the Indian head of the Singapore government-owned Temasek Holdings, who has a reputation of being two and a half hours ahead of everyone else in smelling any deal—walks in right then.
Kejriwal, one of India’s top deal-makers, invitingly says, “Come in.” Beyond the front hall and this conference room, forbidding wooden doors block Temasek’s offices. So, when one of the Chinese walls opens, I feel as if I will be peeking into a bunker filled with deal-makers.
Looking forward: Always two and a half hours ahead (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
I imagine they are running around the office aggressively trying to match their recent milestone. In January, Temasek closed its consummate deal in India, a $500 million (Rs2,010 crore) investment in Bharti Infratel Ltd—the subsidiary and tower arm of telecom firm Bharti Airtel Ltd. The tower business requires large capital expenditures and is banking on rural subscribers. It was a new play, and it took them months of research for comfort—and a year to close. Then Kejriwal brought in the global big boys of private equity—Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Co. (KKR), Goldman Sachs and Co., Macquarie Group Ltd—to contribute to Temasek’s anchor investment of half a billion dollars.
But, instead of a strategy map, I find a finger-paint drawing of a stick figure tagged, “I love daddy because he does masti with me. He tickles me.” It has an uncanny likeness to Kejriwal, minus the shiny gold belt buckle. The portrait subject starts talking quickly as I study the many photos of “his brat”, likely the aforementioned artist.
Soon, I am literally running to keep up with Kejriwal’s words and pace as we head to Mumbai’s favourite lunch spot for private equity investors—Wasabi, at The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower.
As we are about to sit, he spots some friends and excuses himself to greet his Harvard MBA school buddy, Brooks Entwistle, managing director and chief executive of Goldman Sachs (India) Securities Pvt. Ltd. I have a second to wonder if Kejriwal has one of Wasabi’s monogrammed chopsticks, reserved for elite regulars. Two minutes later, the waiter sets them down.
When Kejriwal came into the business in 2004, it is unlikely that private equity’s reputation or its profit would have gotten him into Wasabi’s hall of fame. “It wasn’t only starting from scratch, it was starting with a bit of a negative legacy,” he says. “Temasek was perceived at that time to be bureaucratic and slow. I think the image now has changed.”
In 2007, Temasek became India’s largest deal-maker when its investments here reached more than $3 billion after a $1.9 billion investment in Bharti Airtel—2007’s top deal. Kejriwal asserts that the $100 billion Temasek isn’t a sovereign wealth fund, a number of which have been in the spotlight recently, because it doesn’t manage budget reserves but raises its own money. And, at least in India, Temasek is mentioned in the same breath as Warburg Pincus India Pvt. Ltd, ICICI Venture Funds Management Co. Ltd and Blackstone Group Llc.
Temasek’s success in India was no sure bet when he joined from the plum position of partner at McKinsey and Co. Inc. Indian companies, which could get debt with a phone call, approached this new animal with trepidation. And, the 2002 economic dip that virtually dried up private equity investment didn’t help matters. Private equity was just getting its toes wet again, and no one knew the temperature of the water.
But, it wasn’t the first time Kejriwal had gone down an untrodden path. For a Marwari family, Kejriwal’s decision to join consulting firm McKinsey in 1991 was a surprise. “I’m the black sheep,” he jokes, pausing to take a bite of the Chilean sea bass in black bean sauce. “(My family said) ‘you’re going out and working for somebody else!’”
There were pressures first from his own family, which owns paper trading and stationery products Kejriwal Stations Holdings Ltd; Kejriwal, in fact, took time off from McKinsey to reorganize it in 1998. And, later, the pressures came from his father-in-law, Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto Ltd (of which he has been a board member for five years). But, the toughest decision was when he returned to India in 1995. “It was a bit of a stepping out,” he says.
Yet, Kejriwal, like many of the other private equity heads in India, can be considered an entrepreneur in his own right. “It was, literally, bootstrapping,” he says. “Ok, we didn’t stand in line for telephones...but it was me, me and me.”
He explains how McKinsey prepared him well for private equity. Having been a consultant myself, I don’t think all consultants can put their money where their mouth is. I tell him so. He smiles and says, “This is a 360 degrees, in a circle back to my roots, because this is your business instinct, this is the Marwari in you showing up and asking you if you smell the money or not.”
But, it seems he has also had some luck and good strategy. In 2004, when the market was down, he made small investments in the market, and saw them do well when the markets recovered post elections. “So, you gained the confidence of being able to press the button,” he says. “And then you build a bunch of relationships...which you then use to do your first couple of deals.” Sanjay Reddy, vice-chairman of GVK Industries, was a friend before he became an investee. ICICI Bank Ltd was his client before becoming a portfolio company.
“We’re in the market position right where we could be the envy of some, so we want to make sure we don’t come across as being obnoxious or heavy-handed,” he says. “There is a certain level of arrogance in the early private equity players.” And, he wants to “appear much more humble.”
In that spirit, he says he tells the younger members of his team: “Take your business card away and you are back to square zero and that’s the real world. So, be real. And, be normal and be down to earth.”
At 2.20pm, Kejriwal ends his quasi-soliloquy along with his lunch and realizes, seemingly coincidentally, that he has a 2.30 meeting. I, who have done 2% of the talking, have barely had time to drop the pen for my no-name chopsticks. “Do you want a quick coffee or something?” he says.
He seems to straddle both times zones, with the appearance of Mumbai leisure fronting for efficient Singapore. It reminds me of what he had said earlier, during lunch, “In life, there is always what you portray and what’s reality.”
Subtly, he keeps peering into my cup, and I can’t tell if he is concerned whether I need more, is unsure that I can appreciate espresso’s acquired taste, or whether he just wants me to hurry up.
But, before I know it, we are back at the Express Towers garage at 2.40pm—and I can clearly see how he has spent more than $3 billion on more than 15 deals in four years. The man can juggle infinite balls.
CURRICULUM VITAE
MANISH KEJRIWAL
Born: 8 November 1968
Education: BA in economics and engineering from Dartmouth College; MBA from Harvard University (Baker Scholar)
Work Profile: Partner at McKinsey and Co. (1991-93 and 1995-2003 in Cleveland, New York and Mumbai); summer intern at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, 1994; summer intern at World Bank in Washington, DC, 1990
Key Moments: Meeting Bill Clinton in 2001 as part of the American Indian Foundation (AIF), when he became a believer in the infamous Clinton charm
Early signs of ambition: Getting an IB from the elite Lester B Pearson College of the Pacific (a United World College), where he learnt Ukrainian dance
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First Published: Sat, Apr 05 2008. 12 45 AM IST